Posted by: zdy1 | 10 March, 2009

Learning Runyankore

If you are wondering why I still haven’t started work at the hospital the answer is that I am first concentrating on trying to learn the basics of the local language.

I don’t actually need Runyankore to survive here in Mbarara. English is widely spoken in Uganda – it is one of the national languages and is the language of the education system! This means that the majority of people in town can speak English and if they can’t there is always someone to translate. However there are many motivations to learn the local language:

    -People’s default is to speak the local language so therefore any social conversations tend to happen in Runyankore.
    – Many of my patients in the hospital may come from the villages or be uneducated and therefore I will need a translator- I am frustrated just thinking about it!! A lot of my job in UK involved talking to people and spending time finding out how I could best help them. Even the practical side of my job, I would be talking to encourage people to move in a certain way.
    – Many songs in church and some church services (depending what church you go to) are in Runyankore.
    – The reaction of people when you can even greet them in their own language is amazing – they obviously appreciate you speaking even a little Runyankore.
    – When shopping you are frequently given a “mzungu” (white person) price. The prices are often lower if you speak in Runyankore!
    – People often talk about you when you are next to them – I am curious to know what they say!
    – A person’s first language can be called their “heart language”. If I want to build relationships with local people (which obviously I do!) then it will be easier to do this in Runyankore!

However being realistic – learning a language is a huge and slow task (I have always had so much respect for people have learnt more than their own language). The language I am trying to learn makes it a little more fun (although not as fun as those who are learning a tonal language – I admire you!!). With so many people speaking English, I do not have total immersion. It is simpler to communicate in English and therefore will have to make a concerted effort to speak Runyankore. Also the language has many vowels (many words both start and finish in a vowel) and the Ankole have much difficulty differentiating between “r” and “l” i.e. they will interchange them regularly. Makes it fun especially when they have lots of words with lots of “r”s in them, some of which are complete tongue twisters. Try saying “irwariro” (it means “ hospital”!). One positive is that there are some words that cover several different meanings although these can be interesting – e.g. kuteera means “to kick”, “to beat”, “to clap” and “to draw”!!?? Although there are also extra words – e.g. in case you ever need it “ebishanku” is the word for “dry cowdung”.

Basically I have a few weeks now to concentrate on the basics but realise that it is likely to take me years rather than months to get anywhere near to the even the basic level that I want to and that is only if I keep motivated.

So how am I learning it? Well I am grateful to have friends like Eddie and Sue Arthur ( work with Wycliffe Bible Translators and are great at directing and motivating a language learning novice like me. Eddie pointed me to which has loads of great resources (worth looking at if you are trying to learn a language – make sure you read the stuff by Greg Thomson).

Me in my duka seller role!

Me in my duka seller role!

Rossete pretending to be a custormer

Rossete pretending to be a custormer

Most importantly I have found a wonderful language helper. She is a girl called Rossete who has recently left school and is waiting to go to university in the Autumn. We have a great laugh and she is swiftly becoming a friend which is fab! I spend most mornings visiting her in her “duka”. This is a tiny shop attached to her house. She teaches me some Runyankore words or phrases and then we practise them as practically as possible. (This morning she got me going to find the water in front of the house and take the matches into the kitchen!). She also makes me serve every customer who comes to the duka (as much as I can!). It means I am now very good at the word for cigarette!! I even know the brand and how much individual cigarettes are!! I’ll talk more about the duka at another time but it is a useful insight into the culture as well. At the end of the morning we have make tea together, speak to her mother (who cannot speak any English) and then walk back to the road via the local village while Rossete makes sure I greet everyone who I meet. In the afternoon I work on learning vocabulary (using a computer flash card programme) and am slowly becoming braver to practise what I know.

Tomorrow Rossete is away so I am not going to the duka but she has given me homework and told me she will draw me if I don’t do it – or maybe she meant something else?!! 🙂



  1. Superb! Keep going, I’m impressed.

  2. This is such an interesting piece of literature. Ningira ngu hati ori expert! 🙂

  3. Hallo, your blog is interesting, especially because my daughter is inmbarara now and is looking for an internship in the hospital sa pupil nurse for 2 months.
    I am a GP from Austria and am planning to come to mbarara in January 2013.
    Until that I an afraid, I will not be able to speak any Runyancore at all.
    But you at encouraging me 😉
    Tank you very much.


  4. The language is interesting and I’d love to learn it fully.
    I learnt the basics,now I just wanna move to another step

  5. Thanks for that openness towards a new language. Thanks too to Rossete. You have helped many indeed to overcome the fear of learning a foreign language leave alone xenophobia itself.

    Am also trying to learn Runyankole but am certain that I will grasp it quickly for Iam a Muganda so it helps since I am among the Bantu speaking People

    I know you will have to get it, I have admired one thing with you! You love it.

    one more thing; Rossete should help you spend some good time with Banyakore kids.


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